04 May 2007

So-called critics of state education

From the archives: A letter to the education correspondent of a national newspaper (1998)

Dear ...

Thank you for your telephone enquiry.

In the information pack which I have already sent you, there is included a copy of a letter to an educational expert. He was one of two, of the sort who pontificate on television, whom I met by being invited as one of the speakers at an undergraduate society meeting about free market education. (He is a proponent of market-based education; I was going to advocate the complete abolition of state education.)

Over dinner with them, I anecdotalised about my education in order to pick up their reactions, which were very interesting. They were soon begging not to hear any more of my stories, became fairly insulting, and left without their puddings. They said to the host as they left that they couldn’t take any more (out of my hearing, but he told me).

I had a friend with me who was a relatively disinterested observer of my interactions with them and found their unveiled hostility surprising. She described them as reacting as if they had had their bluff called. I felt that, in their place, whatever my real feelings, I would have put on a better act of professional interest.

The conversation was mostly about the education of gifted children. I know one is never supposed to believe there is a conspiracy, and in a way I don’t, because I don’t think they had ever conferred together and agreed that such and such a policy would be very good at ruining the life of a precocious child. But asking myself whether they would have reacted any differently if there had been a consciously worked out agreement to damage the chances of precocious children by adopting certain policies and attitudes, I could not think of any difference that I would have expected.

They reminded me of one thing: there is a principle that you never blame schools or local authorities for any harm they have done, or expect them to make any effort to repair the damage to a victim’s life. It is certainly a case of power without responsibility. The educational experts were eager to blame me for my ruined education, or my parents, but showed not the slightest inclination to sound critical of a school or local authority, whatever I told them.

Of recent years some people have got the idea of suing their schools for loss of earnings caused by inadequate reading skills or exam results. Actually it would be very useful to me if I could sue the educational system for a suitable sum (someone at Mensa suggested £500,000 for loss of my own and my father’s earnings, plus something for emotional distress, but I think £1,000,000 would be more nearly adequate, and a more useful sum for setting up a Research Fellowship at a college which, it could be specified, I would hold for life in the first instance, thus overcoming the retirement rule.)

It should be recognised that a second class degree is no degree at all if what you need is to make a career in the academic world, and a person with an IQ of over 180 may actually need what is tendentiously called an 'accelerated' education. Some responsibility should be felt for providing such a person with an education sufficiently suited to his ability to leave him qualified at the end to enter the sort of career to which he is suited.

As my state school headmistress said to me, 'not everyone can take exams young, so it is an unfair advantage if someone is allowed to.' As I did not say to my headmistress, but thought afterwards, 'if you can take exams young, and are not allowed to, that may be a unfair disadvantage.'